CRS Report for Congress China and “Falun Gong” Summary

Order Code RS20333
Updated August 3, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
China and “Falun Gong”
Thomas Lum
Analyst in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The “Falun Gong” movement has led to the largest and most protracted public
demonstrations in China since the democracy movement of 1989. On April 25, 1999, an
estimated 10,000 to 30,000 adherents assembled in front of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese
Communist Party leadership compound, and participated in a silent protest against state
repression of their activities. On July 21, 1999, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
government, fearful of the spread of social unrest, outlawed the movement and began to
arrest Falun Gong protesters. Despite the crackdown, Falun Gong adherents have
continued to stage demonstrations and to defy authorities. The government has vowed
to “crush” the movement before the 16th Communist Party Congress is held in 2002. On
July 18, 2001, the House of Representatives introduced H.Con.Res. 188, which calls
upon the government of the PRC to cease its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.
Background and Major Events
What Is “Falun Gong”? “Falun Gong,”also known as “Falun Dafa,”1 combines
an exercise regimen with meditation and moral tenets. The practice and beliefs are derived
from qigong, a set of movements through which one channels vital energies, and Buddhist
and Daoist principles. Falun Gong offers practitioners physical well-being, emotional
tranquility, and a higher understanding of life’s purpose and one’s place in society.
Followers claim that by controlling the wheel of dharma, which revolves in the body, one
can cure such ailments as high blood pressure, back aches, and even cancer. Falun Gong
upholds three main virtues — compassion, forbearance, and truthfulness — and warns
against manifestations of contemporary “moral degeneration” such as rock music, drugs,
and “sexual liberation.” Adherents believe that through practicing Falun Gong, individuals
can reach higher levels of “cultivation,” problems of society can be solved, and the end of
the world can be averted.2
The literal meanings of “Falun Gong” and “Falun Dafa,” respectively, are “law wheel exercise”
and “great way of the wheel of dharma.” See Danny Schechter, Falun Gong’s Challenge to China
(New York: Akashic Books, 2000).
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Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Some observers argue that Falun Gong resembles a cult; they refer to the
unquestioning support of its founder, Li Hongzhi, the interest in end-of-the-world
prophesies, and the rejection of Western science. The PRC government charges that Falun
Dafa has contributed to the deaths of 1,800 persons by discouraging medical treatment and
causing mental disorders. Followers counter that the practice is voluntary, compatible
with mainstream science and culture, and helps develop healthy, moral, and productive
citizens. They also emphasize that Falun Gong is not a religion – there is no worship of
a deity, all-inclusive system of beliefs, church or temple, or formal hierarchy.
Falun Gong’s Spiritual Leader. Li Hongzhi (“Master Li”), a former Grain
Bureau clerk, developed Falun Gong in the late 1980s, when qigong began to gain
popularity in China. In 1992, Li explained his “discoveries” in a book, Zhuan Falun. In
1993, the Falun Gong movement was incorporated into an official organization, the
Chinese Qigong Association. However, the Falun Gong chapter was expelled in 1996
because of unorthodox practices. Li reportedly left China soon after. During the mid1990s, Falun Gong acquired a large and diverse membership of varying levels of
involvement, with estimates ranging from 3 to 70 million persons, including several
thousand practitioners in the United States.3 In China, the practice attracted many retired
persons as well as factory workers, peasants, state enterprise managers, entrepreneurs,
intellectuals, and students. In addition, the spiritual discipline was embraced by many
retired and active Party and government cadres and military officials and personnel.4 Since
1998, Li and his family have lived in the New York City area. He has appeared at Falun
Gong gatherings in the United States and Canada only four times since May 1999 and has
not granted an interview since the crackdown in China began.
The Demonstrations and Government Crackdown. The Falun Gong
demonstrations of April 1999 caught the Communist leadership by surprise. On April 25,
1999, 10,000 to 30,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered in Beijing. Provincial
representatives arrived in the capital before dawn and joined local followers in front of
Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound. Clutching Master Li’s writings, the
demonstrators sat silently or meditated. Sensing that the government was starting a
campaign to discredit them, some adherents presented an open letter to the Party
leadership demanding official recognition and their constitutional rights to free speech,
press, and assembly.
Between May and June 1999, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders were
reportedly split on whether to ban Falun Gong and conveyed contradictory messages.5
A more recent estimate puts the figure at “several million” members. See Craig S. Smith, “Sect
Clings to the Web in the Face of Beijing’s Ban,” New York Times, July 5, 2001.
The practice reportedly enjoyed a strong following among soldiers and officers in some
northeastern cities. The Chinese Navy published copies of Zhuan Falun. See Lorien Holland,
“Breaking the Wheel,” Far Eastern Economic Review, August 5, 1999 and Susan V. Lawrence,
“Stressful Summer,” Far Eastern Economic Review, August 19, 1999. According to another
source, there were 4000-5000 Falun Gong “sympathizers” in the PLA air force. See David
Murphy, “Losing Battle,” Far Eastern Economic Review, February 15, 2001.
Chan, Vivien Pik-Kwan, “Sect Ban Rumour Not True — Beijing,” South China Morning Post,
June 15, 1999; John Pomfret, “Jiang Caught in Middle on Standoff,” Washington Post, April 8,
Premier Zhu Rongji met with a delegation of practitioners to consider its request for
official approval. By contrast, President Jiang Zemin was shocked by the apparent loss of
Party unity and authority and finally ordered the crackdown. Jiang was also angered by
the apparent ease with which U.S. officials had granted Li Hongzhi a visa and feared U.S.
involvement in the movement. The Party initially promised Falun Gong practitioners that
their activities would not be outlawed. However, the government also produced circulars
forbidding Party members from practicing Falun Gong. State television and newspapers
portrayed the following as a religious cult that ruined people’s lives and disrupted familial
and social stability. Security forces collected the names of instructors, infiltrated exercise
classes, and closed book stalls selling Falun Dafa literature. Tensions escalated as
followers engaged in 18 major demonstrations, including occupying a government building
in Nanchang and demonstrating in front of China Central Television Station in Beijing.6
The government crackdown began on July 21, 1999, when Falun Gong was officially
outlawed and an arrest warrant was issued for Li Hongzhi.7 In Beijing alone, public
security officers closed 67 teaching stations and 1,627 practice sites.8 CCP leaders
ordered 1,200 Party and government officials who had practiced Falun Gong to sever their
own ties to the movement. The state detained and questioned over 30,000 participants
nation-wide, releasing most of them after they promised to quit or identified group
organizers. Some followers were required to submit large sums of money as security
deposits or bail. The state also blocked Falun Gong Internet sites and closed the e-mail
accounts of many practitioners, although without complete success.9
Government prosecutors have charged Falun Gong leaders with various crimes,
including “leaking state secrets to foreigners,” “organizing superstitious sects,” disrupting
public order, obstructing justice, engaging in unlawful assembly and publication, tax
evasion, and manslaughter. An estimated 150 to 450 group leaders and other members
have been tried and sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years.10 In December 2000,
Xiao Jiang, “List of Major Demonstrations,” China Daily (August 6, 1999): p. 2.
In November 1999, Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, stated that
police would not interfere with people who practiced alone in their own homes. Matt Forney,
“Beijing Says Changes in Economy Helped Spur Falun Dafa’s Growth,” Wall Street Journal,
November 5, 1999.
Before the crackdown, there were approximately 39 “teaching centers,” 1,900 “instruction
centers” and 28,000 practice sites nationwide. See John Pomfret and Michael Laris, “China
Expands Sect Crackdown,” Washington Post, July 25, 1999; and John Wong and William T. Liu,
The Mystery of Falun Gong (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. and Singapore University
Press, 1999).
Seth Faison, “Chinese Officials Held in Campaign Against Vast Sect,” New York Times, July
27, 1999; Agence France-Presse, “‘Mass Exodus’ from Falun Gong,” South China Morning Post
(Internet Edition), August 9, 1999; Craig S. Smith, “Online: In a Chinese Battle, the Web is
Mightier Than the State,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 1999.
Pomfret, John, “China: Social Strains Fueled Banned Sect,” Washington Post, November 5,
1999; The government ordered Chinese lawyers not to defend Falun Gong leaders without prior
Teng Chunyan, a U.S. resident and Falun Gong practitioner, was tried in a Beijing court
and sentenced to 3 years in prison on charges of espionage.11 The number of remaining,
“unrepentant” followers kept under various forms of detention, such as prison or “labor
re-education,” is estimated to be 10,000.12 Another 5,000 loyal followers are “under
watch.” Human rights organizations claim that over 250 adherents have died in custody,
mostly from torture. Many other followers who have not renounced Falun Gong or who
have gone repeatedly to Beijing to demonstrate have been suspended or expelled from
school or demoted or dismissed from their jobs.
However, the Chinese government has encountered difficulties in its efforts to
“eliminate” Falun Gong. Some reports indicate that many demonstrators have been sent
home repeatedly or have managed to evade the police. The enforcement of government
decrees, such as those requiring schools, employers, and neighborhood committees to
extract signed repudiations of Falun Gong, has often been lax. Many local public security
bureaus have lacked the capacity or will to detain, let alone reform, adherents.13
Public gatherings of Falun Gong adherents reappeared as early as August 1999, one
month after the crackdown. During the last week of October 1999, 1,000 to 3,000
followers converged in Beijing. Several smaller demonstrations took place in the capital
between December 1999 and March 2000. In July 2000, over 1,000 practitioners went
to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to commemorate the anniversary of the crackdown.
Several hundred adherents demonstrated on October 1, 2000, China’s National Day. In
January and February 2001, six persons identified by the government as Falun Gong
practitioners immolated themselves at Tiananmen Square.14 The government then began
to intensify its crackdown, setting up a special “610" task force and pressuring local
officials to carefully monitor all Falun Gong activities, even those done privately. On April
25, 2001, the second-year anniversary of the demonstrations at Zhongnanhai, about 30
adherents went to Tiananmen Square before being swiftly detained. On July 23, 2001, at
least five followers were arrested on the square.15
approval from the Office of Legal Administration.
Ms. Teng had allegedly brought foreign journalists to a Chinese psychiatric hospital where Falun
Gong adherents were being kept. See also H.Res. 160, which calls upon the PRC to release
detained U.S. citizens and U.S. residents of Chinese ancestry. (Agreed to by a vote of 379 - 0 on
June 25, 2001.)
“Labor re-education” is a form of “administrative punishment” for non-criminal acts (such as
“disrupting public order”) that lasts between one and three years and does not require a trial. Falun
Gong activists claim that the actual figure of those under detention is much higher. Craig S. Smith,
“Sect Clings to the Web in the Face of Beijing’s Ban,” New York Times, July 5, 2001, p. 1; Mary
Beth Sheridan, “Falun Gong Protests on the Mall,” Washington Post, July 20, 2001.
See John Pomfret, “China’s Steadfast Sect,” Washington Post, August 23, 2000.
Two of the self-immolators died. Four were known to have protested on behalf of Falun Gong
before. Falun Gong spokespersons asserted that Falun Dafa does not teach nor approve of suicide
and that the PRC government staged these incidents in order to discredit the group.
Charles Hutzler, “Falun Gong Feels Effect of China’s Tighter Grip,” Asian Wall Street Journal,
April 26, 2001.
Chinese Public Opinion Toward Falun Gong. On the one hand, the
suppression of Falun Gong has reportedly deepened anti-government sentiment among not
only followers but also many non-followers, including liberal intellectuals. Some Chinese
have commented that the reaction of the Party leadership has been irrational and excessive,
unconstitutional, and reminiscent of earlier, more repressive periods of Communist rule.
On the other hand, many Chinese have remained indifferent or unsympathetic towards
Falun Gong adherents. Some Chinese blame Li Hongzhi, arguing that he has exploited
vulnerable people and caused their suffering by encouraging them to forgo medical
treatment and continue to oppose the government.16
Falun Gong’s Organizational Structure. Adherents of Falun Gong often
characterize their objectives as personal and limited in scope, claiming that they have no
political agenda beyond protecting their constitutional rights and receive little guidance
from Master Li.17 However, many practitioners in China and abroad have become
increasingly critical of the Communist Party, particularly General Secretary Jiang Zemin.
Furthermore, according to some analysts, the organization was well organized before the
crackdown. A more fluid, underground network, aided by the Internet, pagers, and pay
phones, has carried on since the ban.18 Some reports suggest that Li Hongzhi has directed
the movement from behind the scenes. Furthermore, his public statements have had
profound moral influence upon many of his followers. Li’s exhortations have recently
become more exacting, urging followers not to “hide themselves” or retreat but rather to
“step forward” – even to endure torture in prison – as a means toward higher levels of
existence or “consummation.”19
Implications for Chinese Politics
The PRC government has referred to Falun Gong as “the most serious threat to
stability in 50 years of communist history.” Party leaders perhaps feared that the influence
of Falun Gong could undermine cohesion within the regime by introducing an alternative
moral belief system. Before the crackdown, many members of the party, government,
armed forces, and public security apparatus became involved in the movement. VicePresident Hu Jintao stated that of 2.1 million known members of the Falun Gong group,
one-third belonged to the Communist Party.20
Falun Gong has posed a massive control problem for the government. In comparison
with many other groups that have challenged the state, Falun Gong adherents are relatively
Interview with Falun Gong practitioner, August 3, 1999, Washington, D.C.; See also Mei Lu,
“The Report of ‘Falun Gong Survey’,” The Voices of Chinese [].
Li was reportedly en route from Hong Kong to Australia when the April 1999 demonstrations
broke out and denies that he instigated them.
Ian Johnson, “Brother Li Love: In China, the Survival of Falun Dafa Rests on Beepers and
Faith,” Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2000, p. A1.
“Master Li Hongzhi’s Lecture at the Great Lakes Conference in North America,” December 9,
2000. See also John Pomfret, “A Foe Rattles Beijing from Abroad,” Washington Post, March 9,
2001and Ian Johnson, “As Crackdown Grows, Falun Gong’s Faithful Face a New Pressure,” Wall
Street Journal, March 27, 2001.
Pomfret, John, “China Takes Measured Steps Against Sect,” Washington Post, August 6, 1999.
numerous, widespread, unified, and devoted. Since practitioners cross social classes and
geographic boundaries, Chinese leaders cannot easily control the movement by focusing
upon a few individuals, groups, institutions, or regions. Because adherents pursue Falun
Gong for non-material reasons, monetary sanctions and even physical coercion are often
ineffectual. Moreover, several thousand followers who practice Falun Gong overseas have
lobbied foreign governments to apply diplomatic pressure upon China.
China’s leaders may have also feared that Falun Gong’s principles and actions, which
they regard as subversive, could serve as examples for other Chinese. For example, Falun
Gong excludes the roles of the Communist Party and nationalism in satisfying people’s
spiritual needs and rejects the government’s emphasis on wealth. Most of its members
have not benefitted greatly, if at all, from the economic boom of the past decade. Falun
Dafa’s core, traditional Chinese values of compassion, forbearance, and truthfulness could
be adopted by other social groups as a basis for criticizing government corruption and
oppression. The movement’s reference to constitutional rights could be copied by other
PRC citizens suffering from political, ethnic, or religious persecution.
U.S. Government Responses
China’s crackdown on Falun Gong has affected U.S. interests regarding international
religious freedom, human rights, trade relations, and the treatment of U.S. permanent
residents and citizens. P.L. 105-292, the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of
1998, created a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and authorizes the
President to impose sanctions upon countries that violate religious freedom. On the basis
of the Commission’s findings, the Department of State has identified China as a “country
of particular concern.”21 P.L. 106-286 (H.R. 4444) extends permanent normal trade
relations (PNTR) status to the PRC but criticizes China’s denial of religious, spiritual, and
other freedoms, including the government’s persecution of Falun Gong adherents, and
establishes a special commission to monitor human rights in China.
Members of the 107th Congress have introduced two concurrent resolutions that
include references to Falun Gong: H.Con.Res. 121, supporting a policy review of U.S.China relations, and H.Con.Res. 68, condemning China for its poor human rights record.
On July 18, 2001, the House of Representatives introduced H.Con.Res. 188, which calls
upon the PRC to cease its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.22
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “2000 Annual
Report on International Religious Freedom: China.”
A similar bill, H.Con.Res. 218 (106th Congress), passed the House of Representatives on
November 18, 1999, but was not taken up in the Senate.